We get an exclusive look at the next game in Electronic Arts' slick snowboarding series.
Ever since the first info on SSX3 was released, anticipation for the latest installment in Electronic Arts' snowboarding series has been running high. The series has quickly garnered a healthy following thanks to two strong entries, the original SSX in 2000 and its follow-up, SSX Tricky, in 2001. While the series has certainly continued to evolve over the course of both games, developer EA Canada has opted to take a dramatic leap forward with SSX3. In addition to features such as new playable characters, new courses, new music, and improved graphics, SSX3 offers an entirely new sensibility that expands everything about the game. We had the chance to get an exclusive look at the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox versions of the game and are pleased to report that EAC's ambitious vision is coming together very well. SSX3 is shaping up to offer a slick combination of the strongest elements from the previous entries in the series and a heaping helping of new content that should please longtime fans and make some new ones as well.
When you first start the game you come to one of the few traditional menus that lists the three modes from which to choose. Single event lets you play any of the events you've unlocked. Conquer the mountain is a career-style mode that lets you run a variety of races to unlock peaks and build up your character. Finally, multiplay lets you take on a friend in race or freestyle competitions on any of the courses you've unlocked in conquer the mountain. PlayStation 2 owners get the added benefit of online play (which we'll touch on in the coming weeks).
Once you select a mode, you're brought to the character select screen where you'll see the 10 initially selectable characters. Old-timers Psymon, Elise, Mac, Kaori, Zoe, and Moby are joined by Griff, a pint-sized "sugar stoked engine"; Viggo, a reasonably hip boarder described as "20 pounds of cool in a 5 pound bucket"; Nate, an older gent "driven by rock-solid ambition and an indestructible attitude"; and Allegra, a new female rider who's described as "fresh, fierce, and barely constrained by gravity." Each character has meters that track various stats, like acceleration, edging, speed, and overall ranking. When you start the game, all of your rider rankings are at a thoroughly unimpressive "1." Beefing up rider abilities requires you to go through the conquer the mountain mode.
Once you select a character, an cinematic intro sequence sets the stage, highlighting the mountain and your plane trip up. The sequence shifts from CG to the game engine as you hop from the plane onto the mountain and begin a run. A voice-over from the local "EA Radio Big" DJ clues you in as to what's going on. As he speaks, you begin passing markers that direct you to different color-coded areas for the race, slopestyle, big air, and mid-station areas. Navigating by the signs, as you board down the mountain, effectively replaces most menus in the game for the rest of your play time. As you head down, you'll see question marks that reveal messages on your in-game PDA; these messages offer gameplay tips and hints. If you miss a turnoff, you can pause the game and select a "transport" option that lets you move to set points on the mountain.
SSX3 uses a slightly different structure from its predecessors, although it is still mission-based. The game is set on a single mountain composed of three peaks. When you start the game you're only able to access the first peak. Each peak features four main goals. Successful completion of a goal yields a pass that lets you access the next peak. The four goals offer some variety, which should allow players to progress even if their skills are weak in a particular area. The race goal requires you to earn a medal in all race events. The freestyle goal requires you to earn a medal in all freestyle events. The freeride goal is a bit more involved, as it requires you to find collectibles that are strewn about the mountain. Finally, you must complete the big challenges you come across as you go through the mountain events.
As far as gameplay goes, SSX3 has done some serious revamping of the SSX formula, as we mentioned in our look at the game's score combo and systems. The keyword for SSX3 is "options," as the new systems are extremely flexible and offer plenty of depth. The control is as solid as ever, but it's been beefed up to offer more combo options. The layout is roughly the same as that in Tricky. The PlayStation 2 and the Xbox versions seem good, as ever, although we should note that the setup seems much less clunky on the GameCube this year.
The graphics in the game are coming together very well, across the board. Unlike SSX Tricky's inconsistent performance across the three platforms, SSX3 hums along nicely. The game's new graphics engine bumps up the polygon count from that of Tricky and throws in a lot more detail for good measure. The new "one mountain" approach offers as much visual variety as the previous entries in the game, thanks to the game's strong artistic direction. When you begin playing the game your attention will obviously be held by your immediate surroundings. Thanks to the open-ended nature of the courses, you're treated to quite a bit of variety on any given run.
The main path down the mountain features the visual trappings seen in the previous entries of the series: a distinct path down the mountain with jumps denoted by colored markers and arrows placed throughout the run to show you where to go. While this is all well and good, it's really just a fraction of what the game has to offer. Once you shake off the traditional course mentality and begin trying alternate ways through a race, you're treated to a host of impressive little touches. Some routes let you get a look at awesome vistas that do a superb job of making you feel like a snowboarding ant in the face of the massive mountain. Others show off more-subtle detail, such as the different gradients of snow that have been re-created in the game, like powder, packed ice, and plain old snow.
Your level of elevation on the mountain also affects the game's graphics, as banks of clouds appear at higher elevations to obscure your view during jumps. You may even feel a few genuine butterflies in your stomach as you sail through a cloud bank wondering where you'll end up. As far as specifics go, all three versions look comparable, though there are subtle tweaks that take advantage of each platform's strengths. The Xbox version looks especially sharp, though the GameCube and the PlayStation 2 come in close behind. We're especially pleased to see all three preview versions of the game running at a constant 60 frames per second this time out.
The audio in the game is a nice mix of unobtrusive ambient noise, along with a catchy collection of music that complements the action. The ambient tracks do a fine job of pumping out an audio package that really puts you on the slope, and the music tracks' thumping tunes really pull you into the game. A nice touch to the game is its THX certification. This is quite a feather in the sound team's cap, as it means the game meets THX's audio standards. The game sounds great across all platforms, although it's tailored to play to the strengths of each platform, so you can expect the Xbox game to sound the best.
Based on what we've seen so far, SSX3 shouldn't disappoint its fans. It seems to offer slick visuals, addictive gameplay, and a plethora of things to do. While PlayStation 2 owners will be pleased to see the extra benefit of online play in their version of the game (which is certainly something we would like to have seen in the Xbox version), the offline single-player and multiplayer content is strong enough to keep fans busy for quite a while. SSX3 is currently scheduled to ship this fall for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. Look for more on the game soon.
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